ORLANDO, Fla. — A strengthening Hurricane Sandy disrupted the race for the White House Monday, with President Obama cancelling two of his precious waning campaign days to get Air Force One safely back to Washington and monitor the storm.
Obama rushed out of battleground Florida ahead of a planned noon rally to beat the worst of the weather system bearing down on the East Coast. As he was in midair, the White House announced that Tuesday's trip to Green Bay, Wis., also was off.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney was campaigning in the Midwest Monday out of the storm's path, but called off events scheduled in Virginia Sunday and New Hampshire Tuesday. He told supporters in the storm's path to bring in their yard signs so they don't damage property.
Obama, mindful of his need to show command in crisis while in the final throes of a tough re-election campaign, met with federal emergency officials Sunday before flying to Florida that night ahead of a rally scheduled for Monday. But the intensifying storm heading to the East Coast took priority, with the president signing emergency declarations for New England states in the middle of the night from his Orlando hotel room.
By dawn the White House decided to call off the politicking.
"Due to deteriorating weather conditions in the Washington area, the president will not attend today's campaign event in Orlando," spokesman Jay Carney said in a written statement. "The president will return to the White House to monitor the preparations for and early response to Hurricane Sandy."
About an hour after the statement went out, Obama slipped into his black armored limousine and his motorcade sped toward the airport under sunny Florida skies. The president jogged up the steps, and Air Force One quickly lifted off for the two-hour flight to Washington. Most of the White House press corps was left behind after the pilots of their separate chartered plane determined it was unsafe to follow Air Force One back.
Obama's aides considered moving the Orlando event even earlier Monday morning but were told that would put Air Force One back too late to land safely. Nearly all commercial flights had already been canceled in the Washington area as heavy rains soaked the capital ahead of Sandy's expected landfall Monday night.
With eight days before Election Day, neither campaign could afford to fully shut down its political activity in a race that remains tight. Four critical election states are affected by the storm — North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire — but there was still unthreatened ground to cover across the rest of the country.
While the impact of the storm had yet to be seen, at the very least it was a distraction as both sides were looking to make their final appeals and millions of ballots were already being cast in early voting. It threatened to dilute Romney's efforts to close the deal with voters while giving Obama a platform to show leadership in the time of crisis. And power outages could end up cutting off their message in television ads and automatic phone calls in the eastern swing states.
Romney was staying far from campaign battlegrounds in the path of the storm, and concentrating on interior states seen increasingly as critical to his chances at the presidency. But another type of storm was awaiting him in Ohio.
The United Auto Workers announced recently a deal with Ford that promises to create 600 new jobs in nearby Brook Park, and keep 1,800 jobs in Avon Lake. The Avon Lake jobs are the product of Ford moving its commercial truck business from Mexico to Ohio.
The development not only gives Obama a chance to stoke his call for returning jobs to the U.S. from overseas, but reminds voters in auto-heavy Ohio of the auto bailout that Romney opposed.
Obama and his campaign have tirelessly jabbed at Romney's auto industry position, seen as a barrier to the Republican in Ohio and nearby northern industrial states. Romney's visit to Avon Lake will no doubt provide another reminder.
Romney also was scheduled Monday to campaign in Iowa and Wisconsin, trying to force Obama to play defense in a state where the president has been leading in the polls despite the addition of native son Paul Ryan on the GOP ticket.
"I know that right now some people in the country are a little nervous about a storm about to hit the coast, and our thoughts and prayers are with people who will find themselves in harm's way," Romney told supporters in Ohio on Sunday.
Former President Bill Clinton still planned to appear before voters at the Orlando rally in Obama's absence. Later Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden were appearing together in Youngstown, Ohio. Biden was originally supposed to campaign in New Hampshire Monday, but diverted to Ohio to replace Obama after the president canceled his appearance to stick to Washington.
But the abrupt cancellation meant Obama's trip to Florida was essentially a waste. The campaign bumped up the rally by two hours and rescheduled his flight to Orlando from Monday morning to Sunday night to get ahead of the storm.
The president made an unannounced stop at a campaign office Sunday night, where he told supporters the storm meant he wouldn't be able to campaign as much over the next few days.
"You guys need to carry the ball," he told the volunteers.
Polls suggest Obama has an advantage in reaching the required 270 Electoral College votes. But Romney's campaign is projecting momentum and considering trying to expand the playing field beyond the nine states that have garnered the bulk of the candidates' attention.
A senior Republican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to disclose private deliberations, said Romney's team was discussing sending the GOP nominee, Ryan or both to traditionally left-leaning Minnesota during the campaign's final week.
Obama was briefed Sunday on the government's response at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and spoke by phone to affected governors and mayors.
"Anything they need, we will be there," Obama said. "And we are going to cut through red tape. We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules. We want to make sure that we are anticipating and leaning forward."
Obama has declared emergencies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia, authorizing federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts.
Both campaigns used social media to urge supporters to donate to the Red Cross and said they would stop sending fundraising emails on Monday to people living in areas in the storm's path.
Romney staffers in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia were collecting storm-relief supplies at campaign offices to be delivered via one of Romney's campaign buses. In an email, Romney encouraged supporters in the storm's path to help neighbors get ready.
"For safety's sake, as you and your family prepare for the storm, please be sure to bring any yard signs inside," the email read. "In high winds they can be dangerous, and cause damage to homes and property."
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press reporters Steve Peoples in Mansfield, Ohio, and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.